SAN FRANCISCO — The applause said it all. They were clapping, rescue workers who have been days without a smile, covered in dirt, performing the most gruesome task that humans can be asked to perform: removing the dead. The bodies were mangled. Crushed. Some beyond recognition. And suddenly, miraculously, a heartbeat, a breath of life. A man named Buck Helm, trapped since Tuesday’s earthquake in the sandwiched wreckage of the Nimitz Freeway, was alive. He was alive. As they drove him off, the workers tapped the side of the ambulance, as if to draw his strength, as if to say “Godspeed. Thank you. Thank you for giving us hope.”

I saw that on the television, and I almost cried.

This has been a week like no other, a week of terror, shock and numbness for everyone who felt the ground here move Tuesday afternoon and wondered, in a frozen moment, if that was the end.

It has been five days of headlines and tears. But soon, despite Saturday’s miracle, the stories will fade. People will turn to the next big crisis. The networks will recall all those mice that came scurrying out to anchor their newscasts with a picture of a fallen bridge in the background. And the bay area will be left to dig itself out for real, a chore that will take years, literally, and even then it will never be the same.

Who will take care of all these people? What will become of them? How will they ever forget those 15 seconds that shook the world? In the Loma Prieta mountain, where this earthquake began, a growl of the planet that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless, there now sits a house leaning to the side. The front porch is a leap away from a massive crack, a hole from hell, as wide as a desk and so deep you could drop a fishing rod in it and the rod would disappear.

“You know,” says Lynn Wolleson, who owns the house and has lived here for years. “I still don’t want to leave. On the good days, this place is so serene.”

She forces a laugh. “This hasn’t been one of the good days.” Aftershocks wrack the mind

The shaking, people will tell you, is what will not go away. You can be sitting in a chair, and suddenly, you relive it, the rumbling of the ground, the swaying of buildings, the feeling that you are helplessly, perilously, without control. There are all sorts of aftershocks in an earthquake, and only some of them have to do with the ground.

“I can’t sleep,” people now whisper to one another. “The slightest little movement and I just bolt out of bed.”

I, too, cannot stop the shaking. Having stood, open- mouthed, in the upper deck of Candlestick Park, as the beams and seats and playing field began to tremble, bounce, roll like thunder, I have been trying for days now to accurately write what this tragedy was like. And I’m not sure I’ve even come close. It was the worst of scenes and the most heroic of poses. It was the Nimitz Freeway turned instantly to a concrete pancake, maybe hundreds killed, and it was a man named Tim Binder, who raced into that rubble and found a bleeding woman trapped inside a car that was crushed to the the height of a tire. He helped her get out. Alive.

It was a church steeple coming down in Watsonville, a sleepy rural town where the church is the proudest landmark. And it was the collapse of a shopping mall in Santa Cruz, where five people sat holding hands in a silent vigil for their sixth coworker, who was missing. “She’s alive,” they insisted. “She’s alive.”

She was found, two days later, dead.

It was the San Francisco Marina, the lovely marina, suddenly ablaze, millions in real estate now worthless piles of debris. And it was John Rampalla, who ran to a collapsed four-story apartment building there, and pulled a woman out through the window. “She kept saying ‘I can’t go out the window! I live on the fourth floor!’ She didn’t realize the fourth floor was in the street.”

It was the oddest of pairings, the curious and the devastated, people weeping alongside a single bagful of possessions, while across the street, tourists posed for pictures by a crack in the sidewalk. A bearded resident of the Anglo Hotel, who told us: “I saw the picture of Jesus on the wall begin to tremble. And I said, ‘No, Lord. Please, Lord. Don’t do this to us.” And a shaggy-haired vendor named Nicole Verment, who was smiling as she sold her “I Survived the Great Quake of 1989” T-shirts.

It was courage, anguish, kindness and death. It was Saturday’s rescue, and it was a surgeon named Jim Betts, who, Tuesday, in the dangerous minutes after the earthquake, rushed to the wreckage of the Nimitz, and, with a team of rescue workers, discovered one survivor, a 6-year-old boy, trapped in a crushed vehicle. His legs were pinned beneath the corpse of his mother. He was dying. Betts dragged the child, wrapped him in blankets, then, because there was no other way, he sawed through the mother’s dead body, amputated the boy’s useless right leg, and freed him. Gruesome. Horrifying. And necessary. The child survived.

“This,” said a weary Betts, “was your worst nightmare.”

And it will not go away. A lesson against arrogance

Good-bye, arrogance. If we learned one lesson from Tuesday’s knockout, it is this: We are nothing. We are overmatched. We will lose to Mother Nature the way an ant loses to a shoe, quickly, horribly, without a second thought. Anyone who dies a big shot in this country does it by luck of the draw. One belch of the Earth and you’re inside a hole somewhere.

It is this helplessness that seems to sit on the brain now, like an empty grave. I felt as depressed as I’ve ever felt in the three days following the quake. Why? My sister, who lives in this city and is pregnant with her first child, had been found unharmed, only her apartment was cracked. We were lucky, right? Why such sorrow? Is it the cumulative effect of looking at destruction? Or is it because you’re supposed to feel lousy because that’s the proper reaction?

On Thursday night, I wandered down to the Red Cross shelter in the Moscone center and asked to volunteer, to do something. They said thank you, have a seat, wait, maybe they could use me. I found a chair amidst a sea of green cots. There were hundreds of homeless people there. There were sad faces and dirty faces and faces that still registered shock.

“Hello,” said a woman tapping my shoulder. I spun around. She wore a Red Cross patch. Figuring I was homeless, she handed me a little package.

“Here’s a bar of soap,” she said, smiling, “so you can take a shower.” Amidst tragedy heroism

We are nothing. And yet, we are everything we can be, when we have to be. The heroism displayed by people here has been the most inspiring behavior I have ever seen: the rescue workers who found Helm, on the fifth sweep of the area, refusing to believe their instruments that said there were no survivors.

“Thank God,” Helm reportedly mumbled when pulled from the wreck.

Indeed. Thank God. For the store owners who gave away food, for the cab drivers who freely opened their doors, for the shelter workers who stayed up 48 hours.

The healthy tended the ill. The lucky tended the less fortunate. Drivers shuttled fresh water to children who were sleeping in Santa Cruz parking lots.

‘Why would anyone live here?” outsiders wondered. Perhaps because of the kind of people who live here. John Tranbarger, a retired engineer, who has the dubious honor of living smack atop the epicenter, the home plate of the earthquake, was asked if he planned to move now from his mountain home in Loma Prieta.

“Heck no, I’m not moving,” he said, surveying the 70-foot gash in the earth, “I like it here.” Bay area grit on display

They will rebuild San Francisco, they will raise Santa Cruz, they will hammer and drill and burrow their way back into the mountains. But not quickly. Not easily. The damage estimates are already well over $5 billion — some say they may reach $10 billion — and where is that money going to come from? Who will take care of these people?

No one, in the end, except themselves. This is the land of earthquakes, most people accept it, and for all the jokes about the softish nature of the bay area, I doubt too many other cities would show this kind of grit — and this kind of respect for itself.

In the Mission District, near 6th Street, there is a theater lighting company called Bay City Productions. On the day after the quake, the entire structure was slanting backwards.

“Pretty bad damage, huh?” I said to the manager, a fellow named Nick Periera.

“Aw, not too bad,” he said. “A lot of overturned shelves, broken glass, that’s about it.”

“What about your building? It’s slanting backwards.”

He grinned. “That,” he said, “happened in the 1906 earthquake.”

Survival.

None of us will be the same after this week. None of us should be. Not after scenes of bridges crumbling and walls falling on children. And not after scenes like Saturday’s, when Helm, a 57-year-old miracle, was strapped to a yellow stretcher, and lifted from the carnage of his Chevy Sprint, down to safety. You wonder whether he even heard the cheer that went up from the workers, the city, and the world when it learned the news.

The shaking goes on. The waves of depression. But there is an old expression: “Where there is life, there is hope.” As you walk the streets of this battered region, you wonder who on Earth came up with those words, and how did he get so wise?

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